The Children of the Red King series by Jenny Nimmo

So I’m a few books behind in my reviews right now. I would say laziness is the primary factor in this happening, but we could at least call it slightly admirable laziness because I didn’t want to take time to write my blog posts in favor of reading. 

A few things have happened since my last post. First and foremost, for those who don’t yet know, I turned eighteen. I’m now completely legal to do just about anything I want, except drink. Not particularly bothered. The only adult right I’ve taken advantage of so far is the right to get a tattoo. Yes, on my eighteenth birthday I, along with my mother and twin sister, went to get a tattoo. I absolutely love it. I also got a kitten, and a Kindle. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned my position on eReaders somewhere on this blog before, but I don’t know how to find that post right now, so… 

My opinion on eReaders has changed since they were first released. I was, at first, very adamantly against them. I was always entirely in favor of paper. I basically still am, but I’m much more forgiving now of eReaders and people who use them. I’m willing to acknowledge their usefulness, but I still didn’t see myself owning one anytime soon. I was very, very surprised when I opened it! And honestly, Dad, considering I gave you absolutely nothing to go on this year, it was a very thoughtful gift. 

Right now my dad and I are using our Kindles to read Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 together! More on that later.

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When I was in fourth grade I picked up this book called Midnight for Charlie Bone, about a boy who discovers he can hear voices in photographs and is sent to a special school called Bloor’s Academy where he can learn alongside other children with unique talents. When I was younger I was hooked on the series instantly and quickly purchased all of the books- all of the ones that were released at that point, anyway, which in fact were only the first four. Today the series is complete, and the books total eight. About a month ago I decided that it was absolutely worth my time to reread and finish the series.

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Since they are children’s books, I thought I would just review the entire series together rather than spamming my blog with sequels. 

Charlie lives at number nine, Filbert Street, with his mother, two grandmothers- Maisie, and Grandma Bone- and his Uncle Paton. Charlie’s father died under mysterious circumstances when he was only two years old. Since his mother, Amy, and her mother, Maisie, had no money, Grandma Bone let them move in with her. It’s unexplained why her brother, Paton Yewbeam, lives with them, but he does own half the house and he tries to keep an eye on Charlie. 

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It’s a good thing he’s there, too, because Grandma Bone and her malevolent sisters, Lucretia, Eustacia, and Venetia Yewbeam are not thinking of Charlie’s best interest. They’re the ones who send him off to Bloor’s, where the forces of good and evil are in constant struggle. Not every child at Bloor’s is endowed (the term used in the book for having special talents), but the ones who aren’t are extremely skilled at music, art, or drama. There are actually only nine to thirteen endowed students at Bloor’s at any time during the book, and their endowments range from Charlie’s picture traveling, to Manfred’s hypnotism, to Tancred’s stormbringing, to Billy’s communicating with animals. There are telekinetics, illusionists, shapeshifters, drowners, arsonists- and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Every endowed child is descended from the eponymous Red King, a magician who lived nine hundred years in the past. He had ten children, and when his wife died in childbirth, he left his kingdom to grieve in the forest. When he returned, he discovered that his children had turned against each other. Five wanted to continue their father’s legacy of peace and happiness, and the other five longed for power and destruction. Their descendants carry these feelings in their blood- good or evil are things they’re born with.

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With the help of a few friends, both endowed and not, Charlie must fight the evil that lives in Bloor’s Academy and find out what happened to his father all those years ago. 

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The series is a remarkable adventure saga geared towards children- boys and girls alike- that is exciting and fun. Though it is a classic pitting of good versus evil, and the classifications of good and evil are slightly oversimplified, I consider the works to be enjoyable and thought-provoking. One of the books’ greatest strengths are certainly its cast of characters. Though some play larger roles than others, there are a lot of characters in these books and they’re all so well characterized! The major characters are well-rounded, and they’re children- so they’re not always right or good. Sometimes they do things that are frustrating or stupid, like real children. 

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Also, as I gave the books to my mom to read after me, we were continuously doubling back to Jenny Nimmo’s descriptions and marveling at her wonderful word sense. In particular, a character is introduced in book seven named Dagbert Endless, who has a power over water, was consistently described with terms most commonly attributed to oceans and streams. As each of her characters are defined in this manner, it creates an ethereal, imperceptible sort of familiarity between the readers and the children. 

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In the shadow of Harry Potter, this series is underrated- or accused of being a ripoff- but it’s really a great series for adults and children alike. Kids can get into the story, willingly following Charlie through his misadventures are Bloor’s, while adults can appreciate the deeper meaning and the writing that puts many adult novelists to shame. These books are worth every minute you spend reading them (and as I said, they go quick), and every penny you spend putting them on your, or your kid’s, bookshelf.

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Published in: on November 24, 2011 at 1:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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East by Edith Pattou

East is the story of a girl named Ebba Rose who, at the age of fifteen, is visited by a white bear and asked to go with him in exchange for her sister’s health and her family’s well-being. Adventuresome and willful, she agrees and is led to a castle of stone where she is kept for months. Every night, Rose is visited by someone- only she has no idea who or what, because just before his arrival every night the lamps are extinguished and impossible to re-light. She thinks it’s the white bear, only it’s too small. Perhaps one of the troll servants around the castle? She doesn’t know, but the mystery is driving her mad.

East is a 500-page adventure novel for young adults. I’ve owned it since I first read it, in fifth grade. After seven years, I remembered basically nothing (I’m pretty sure I’ve mixed it up with The Golden Compass in the past- the books share a lot of the same elements), so I decided to reread it. Despite it’s length, the book goes quickly. Despite the fact that adventure isn’t really my thing, I enjoyed it.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints- primarily Rose, as she’s the heroine, but also by her elder brother, Neddy, who is stuck at home worrying about her and being unable to move on until she returns; there’s a little bit of her father in the beginning and the end; the Troll Queen, who’s behind it all; and even the White Bear himself, in short, clipped lines, almost like poetry. Because of all these conflicting viewpoints, a lot of backstory is revealed to the reader before it is revealed to Rose. This is dangerous because it could make the reader impatient with Rose, but Edith Pattou does it in such a way that the story runs smoothly, and the heroine comes out looking all the more clever when she does catch up.

The book is good, quick, and escapist. I enjoyed it and I’m glad to have it in my library.

In other news, I’ve recently become completely smitten with the concept of book trailers. I included one in my review of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but I’ve recently found these two which I think are fantastic. Here’s one for The Book Thief:

If you haven’t read this, do. It’s amazing.

This one is for A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. A few weeks ago I asked my librarian to order this for me, but it was so new no one had it. I should inquire again.

Published in: on September 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Yes, I am a book-devouring machine these days. This is in every way related to the fact that I need another job.

I’ve been wanting to read this one for a good few months, but it happened that I actually did read it at this particular time because it’s one that actually lives at the Winthrop library. As opposed to my having to order it.

Coraline is about a girl, small for her age, who’s just moved with her parents to an old apartment building. There are a couple of old ex-actresses downstairs, and a crazy man with (he says) a band of performing mice. There’s an ancient well that could go down further than a half mile. And there’s a bizarre old door in the drawing room wall, with a heavy old key, that opens only to brick.

That is, until one night when something wakes Coraline from her sleep. When she goes to investigate, she finds the door open. On the other side is a house identical to hers, only other. The ruler of this domain is… Coraline’s other mother.

The other mother wants Coraline to stay with them, she and Coraline’s other father, in this world where, she promises, things will always be better. The food will be wonderful at every meal. She will never be ignored. The games will never end.

As Coraline explores her new world, though, she finds that it ends in a mist somewhere in the woods behind the house. The other mother never bothered to create that far out. In short time, Coraline finds herself longing for her real parents. There’s something sinister about the other mother, the other Misses Spink and Forcible. The only thing that’s not other is the cat, who’s quite vocal, and informs Coraline that cats know several ways in and out of places like this. And furthermore, that cats are too good for names. So, he’s just the cat.

When Coraline returns to her real home, though, her parents have gone missing.

Another one by Neil Gaiman, I was less impressed this time around, but I think there’s good reason for that- this is, quite obviously, a book for children. The story is not as complex as the previous Gaiman books I’ve read, but it did have something happening on every page, an interesting array of characters, and a truly scary villain. It’s clever and never boring. It was also very quick, so I’m glad to say I enjoyed it!

If you’ve seen the movie, it’s fun to draw parallels between the two. The movie was actually a very good representation of the story, though it switched some events around and manipulated a bit, as is expected- but there were several places, all throughout, where Selick (the director of the movie) took extreme care to match the feel of the book. In a lot of places, he used the exact dialogue written by Gaiman. There were details in surrounding and action that Selick animated perfectly- such as, for example, the moment towards the end:

The other mother simply smiled, and the tap-tap-tapping of her fingernail against her eye was as steady and relentless as the drip of water droplets from the faucet into the sink. And then, Coraline realized, it was simply the noise of the water, and she was alone in the room.

It felt, to me, like Selick really respected that Gaiman is the master of the story. This is the kind of integrity you don’t see often enough in movie adaptations!

This is basically an adventure story, with a particularly long expositionary period. Even during the exciting, scary bits, though, Gaiman never relinquishes this glimmery, magical tone from his prose. He paints a picture in a way that many authors can’t. He can spend a paragraph describing a painting of fruit, and you’ll wonder what that fruit is up to. It feels like every word he uses has a purpose, and that purpose is most often to manipulate your feelings and make you uneasy, and comfortable, or irritated.

Even in this book for kids, the writing was wonderful. It’s the kind of book I would share with my youngest sister- I think she could enjoy it. I don’t think it’s over the head of the average nine year-old, but it’s also a fun read for your older bookworm.

I have to point out this “praise” that was printed on the back cover, courtesy of Lemony Snicket:

This book tells a fascinating and disturbing story that frightened me nearly to death. Unless you want to find yourself hiding under your bed, with your thumb in your mouth, trembling with fear and making terrible noises, I suggest that you step very slowly away from this book and go find another source of amusement, such as investigating an unsolved crime or making a small animal out of yarn.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a praise that told you not to read a book.

In case you’re interested, here’s the trailer for the movie (which I thought was quite good).

Published in: on July 5, 2011 at 11:55 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Happy April Fool’s day! I’m not really into trickery myself, and today that works out because I have no one to trick. We’re snowed in today. It’s kind of unbelievable, because this week has given us some really nice weather. It’s been warm! But as I look out the window now, there is a heavy blanket of snow growing on the ground, falling since before I woke up. I’ve heard eight to twelve inches.

Needless to say, snow day means reading! Yesterday I spent all of my free time doing all of my homework just so I would be able to enjoy this weekend without worrying about my scholarly obligations. I wanted to be able to read and watch movies and cook and enjoy my leisure time, thank you.

I’ve been interested in reading this book for a few months now because the media intrigued me. This is a story told in words and pictures. I’ve been putting it aside, though, even though I could see it would be quick, until I was at the library with my little sister and she wanted to get it. Since she’s already in the middle of a book (she’s reading The Phantom Tollbooth, which I could never finish, but she’s enjoying it), I took it to read through first. It’s a huge book- 526 pages, and the paper is unusually heavy- but it is a quick read.

I think this book could affectionately be called YA. The story isn’t complicated, and the backstory can be explained in a few paragraphs. The main character is twelve year-old Hugo Cabret, and orphan timekeeper living undetected in a Parisian trainstation. He was an apprentice timekeeper, under his uncle, until his uncle mysteriously disappeared several months ago. Now, living in the walls, Hugo keeps the clocks going so he isn’t found and sent to an orphanage.

He has more important things to worry about, though. Hugo’s father died in a museum fire before the events of the story, and he left Hugo with an automaton- a mechanical man- that he had been carefully restoring to working order. The automaton appears to be able to write, if only he could get it functioning. Using his father’s notebooks, Hugo continues his work, trying to repair the machine that, he imagines, will give him a message from his father.

Nothing is that easy, though- Hugo has to steal mechanical toys, whose parts he takes and uses to fix the man. Then one day, the old man who owns the toybooth catches him, takes his notebook, and tells him that he will burn it.

Along the way, Hugo meets an eccentric young girl named Isabelle, who seems to want to help him.

The story is, like I said, not complicated, but it’s interesting enough to keep you going for the few hours it takes to read. There are a lot of epiphany moments (Hugo needs an adult to enter the library? Cue older friend. The automaton needs an oddly-shaped key to start? Isabelle’s been wearing it around her neck this entire time) which I always think of as a poor substitute for cleverness, a lot of the action is told sparsely, and characterization is kind of lacking. It’s not completely absent, but it could be stronger.

The illustrations, though, are magnificent. They honestly tell the story just as much as the words do (actually, there are more pages of drawings than of words). They’re gorgeous full-page spreads in pencil on watercolor paper. Well, originally on watercolor paper. According to the information thing at the back.




Some of the pages also had photos and stills from old films. It was a very graphic experience. Filmmaking was also a very important element to the story, so there is a lot of that.

All in all, it was a very graphic and unusual reading experience. Even though the writing wasn’t as spectacular spectacular as it could have been, I enjoyed it. I was fond of the characters, and the ending was good. It was appropriately quick, too.

I’m a little bit worried that I won’t be able to make it to the library earlier than next Tuesday. Of course I have books in my pile, but I ordered a few books to come in and I’m rather eager to read them. I wonder if librarians get weather days? Is the library even open today? I could call and find out. Or I could just start a new book or watch a movie.

I enjoy snow days.

Published in: on April 1, 2011 at 2:53 pm  Comments (5)  
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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

I am very drowsy right now. And that’s all I really need to say. There are no very interesting things happening in my life, especially not since three days ago when I wrote for Peter Pan.

So, as I can’t actually remember if I’ve mentioned (and if I have a reminder won’t hurt), I’m reading these books because I know the stories, but I’ve never read them in their original, and it’s interesting the various surprises I’m coming across. It’s like you know the story… but not really. I’ve seen movies and adaptations of Alice (it actually seems quite popular at the moment- I see new Alice-esque novels every time I go to B&N) and they all look interesting because Wonderland is fascinating.

I got this book from the library (from which I get most of my books, especially first-time reads), and they actually had five different copies of both books. I chose two very old, classical covers that looked like a pair. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I realized about halfway through that it would be completely impossible to find the right covers when I needed to write this review. I still checked Google, just in case, and a part of me really wanted to just choose the most stylistic cover, but I figured, no, I chose these ones because I liked how old and musty they looked and I should share that with you. So I photographed them myself.

So here’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

And here’s Through the Looking-Glass:

There, do you see what I mean? They’re perfectly lovely. I was especially thrilled when I looked at the inside cover and saw the name “Phillip A. Bennet” in wobbly penmanship and blue ink. By my estimation, the boy who donated it couldn’t have been more than nine or ten. Then I looked for the year the library had received it- 1978, but the edition came out in 1946. The pages were a pleasantly weathered yellow, there were places where the pages had separated from the cloth of the binding, and the book itself smelled divine. I actually read somewhere online, why it is that old books smell so good. The glue that’s used in book-binding is created from a plant which is closely related to vanilla, and when the glue breaks down it releases the scent. Someone correct me if that’s inaccurate.

Anyway, here’s the thing about Alice: it takes place in a dreamscape. So everything is completely topsy-turvy. It brings new meaning to word ‘nonsense.’ So there’s no real point telling you the plot, because there just isn’t one. It’s a sequence of events, but they’re not in any way connected. But that’s okay, for what it is- Lewis Carroll originally orated this story to a pair of young girls, and nonsense is entertaining to children. The sillier the better. So I won’t criticize it for being pointless- the real problem is that I’m not part of the target audience, so I can’t rightfully enjoy it.

The most fun, for me, came from comparing the Alice’s I know with the story itself. The Disney ‘Alice in Wonderland’ actually uses scenes from both books, and a lot of the more memorable things from the movie actually took place in Looking-Glass Land (there was no mention of Wonderland in Through the Looking-Glass). For example, Tweedledum and Tweedledee were one-scene wonders in the sequel. Humpty-Dumpty made an appearance. Also the singing flowers (though in the book they only made snide comments) and the Walrus and the Carpenter, and the Jabberwocky poem.

Then there were points that get no notice in any adaptations- the entire second book was played as a chess game, with Alice becoming a queen at the end. Through both books (but especially the second) there is a great deal of poems and limericks. Were children really made to memorize such long stanzas back then? What dull lessons. Of course, the first adventure begins because Alice is bored of her lessons.

There’s also much to be said about Carroll’s illustrations. Everyone’s at least a little familiar with the original Alice illustrations, even if they don’t realize it. Carroll certainly has some ability, but I never really thought it could be said that the drawings were pleasant. If anything, they’re a bit garish and even spooky in places. I doubt they were considered so in 1865. Still, I thought they were nice to have, even if they weren’t necessarily pretty. I’m an appreciator of quality illustrations; I really did enjoy the ones in Peter Pan. In fact, I wish I had thought to photograph my favorite one so I could have shown you.

On the subject of Alice adaptations- has anyone seen Phoebe in Wonderland? That’s a movie about a young girl who wins the part of Alice in her school’s production of the play, and she develops a relationship with the characters that helps her deal with the real world as it gets more and more foreign. It’s an excellent movie- a tad on the dark side, I would say, but worth the watch. Most of the daydream sequences were scenes directly from the book, using the exact dialogue, and whenever I came across a passage that I recognized from the movie, my internal voice would switch over. During the final poem in Through the Looking-Glass, I was hearing it sung in my head by the cast of children on stage.

So, I guess that’s it. I’m a little sad to be putting up the children’s books for now, but not entirely. Nonsense gets tedious. I think Alice shared my sentiments, you know- after reading about Wonderland (and Neverland, for that matter) I’ve sort of concluded that I’m happy enough not being there. You need to be very careful of what you say and not to offend, but everyone is s sensitive that you would just as well like not to run into anybody at all. But somebody is always in your path. They sweep you up thoughtlessly and then you have to just go with them. I would find it very frustrating.

Published in: on January 31, 2011 at 8:04 pm  Comments (4)  
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Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

A little while ago I decided that I should really give these classics a shot. And that’s not to say that I looked at Peter Pan and said, “Why on earth would I want to read that?” Mostly it just hadn’t occurred to me until a short while ago.

Particularly with the popular Disney cartoon and all the other movie versions of Peter Pan, I thought it would be interesting to see what Barrie thought of this famous character he created. The common idea about Peter Pan is of a curious little boy who doesn’t grow up, and he doesn’t need to, because he’s the very picture of youth and adventure. He’s ignorant, of course, unschooled, but at the same time with a certain innocence that he claims simply for being a child.

This is not the idea that Barrie had when he invented Peter Pan.

There are ways you could read this book that would even cast Peter as the bad guy.

Actually, all of the children are the bad guys, and the parents are the good guys.

Really, though, Peter is a mean little child. And I had heard that- I knew he wasn’t quite the angelic imp we celebrate today, but really, this book is dark. First, he tricks Wendy, John, and Michael (who were entirely too willing to be tricked) into coming away to him to Neverland, enticing them with mermaids, pirates, and fairies. He teaches them to fly. Then, as they fly on and on to Neverland (it’s not quick, as opposed to what the cartoon implies), he plays daring tricks that would very nearly cost them their lives if he didn’t resolve them in time, even forgetting about them entirely on occasion. He’s half adventure and half cockiness, with the occasional dash of cleverness and wickedness, which Barrie uses almost synonymously.

No, Barrie isn’t trying to skirt around Peter’s faults. He actually makes it very hard for us to ignore them, as the children have done. He uses these same words to describe all of the children at different points- they’re all wicked, thoughtless, heartless, carefree. Yet despite himself, Peter develops a fondness for Wendy, whom he’s brought to Neverland to be a mother to himself and the boys. But even with that, it’s not like she matters to him- she’s someone nice to have around, and that’s all. In fact, it’s interesting that he likes her at all, given his scorn for mothers. It really shows what a child he is; he may not need a mother, but he likes it.

The problem with Peter is that, you can look at what a devilish little child he is, but when he’s right there, flying around with his fairy in his outfit of leaves, he’s incredibly fascinating. He’s even charming.

A note on Captain Hook: he is not the goofy, incompetent villain Disney made him out to be. He was vicious and scary and I would not want to run into him in the middle of the night. And Peter killed him. These boys kill everything with a heartbeat. Those fur clothes the lost boys wore? Those were the skins of animals they killed themselves. Disney made them look like pajamas. They killed pirates. MICHAEL killed pirates. Remember Michael, the baby? He was a ruthless killer.

It would be very, very easy- just change a few key adjectives- to make this a horror novel, and in that case Peter would almost certainly be the villain. Far more so than Hook- Hook is just your average evil villain, ruthless pirate, but then he has surprising light moments, like being drawn short when he comes upon a sleeping child in an idyllic area. Peter carries a haunting sort of malignancy. I would be incredibly mournful if he abducted my child.

On the other hand, for children in the real world, Peter is a part of growing up. At the end (yes, spoilers, who doesn’t know the story) Wendy’s daughter, Jane, goes off with Peter Pan to do his spring cleaning. Later, her daughter, Margaret, does the same. Eventually they all stop believing in Peter, and forget how to fly. They learn maturity and become normal adults. Barrie writes this as an incredible tragedy.

On the other other hand, there’s never actually any implication that Wendy ever realized that she was wrong to be so implicitly trusting of Peter. In fact, if she wasn’t an adult, she probably would have gone with him again in the end. When she tried to stop Jane from flying away, it wasn’t because she didn’t want to entrust her to Peter, it was just because she didn’t want to give her up, in a motherly way. So maybe I just feel like it should have played out this way and it didn’t.

I’ll admit, though, that none of this would probably stop me from reading it to a child. It is a good adventure story. It is very colorful. It would keep children engaged, and if they didn’t notice all the darkness (as children often don’t) I can see how they would enjoy it quite a lot.

OH, I completely forgot to mention the illustrations. My copy of the book had wonderful gorgeous pen-and-ink illustrations and all of the children were absolutely lovely. So perhaps that’s another allure to Peter- he’s positively one of the most handsome little boys you’ve ever seen, all skinny limbs and sharp bones and curly hair with leaves in it. It makes me wonder why they changed his character design in the Disney one- especially for the lost boys, who were also drawn all to be a similar way, and the narration mentioned that all of the boys were bigger than Peter. It’s curious. But the drawings were wonderful, and I wanted to mention them.

Published in: on January 28, 2011 at 8:08 pm  Comments (5)  
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